The truth about the rule of thirds

Unlock the secrets of the ‘rule of thirds’ – Lift the lid once and for all on this most famous photography rule

Bratislava, Slovakia

A photograph that follows the ‘rule of thirds’ is actually employing a number of other compositional techniques that are nothing to do with the ‘rule of thirds’

Understanding exactly what the rule is, is fundamental to using this very handy compositional technique and making it work for your photography…

Firstly, I’d just like to say that this post is not a definition of the rule of thirds. Wikipedia has a very good definition here. My post here is more about how it can be interpreted and employed in creative outdoors photography, and how it applies to my photography.

New Bridge, Bratislava, Slovakia
New Bridge, Slovakia

And…to save any confusion further down the post, just a brief explanation of the ‘tic-tac-toe’ grid (click on the thumbnail images for a larger version).

The four points where the lines cross are the intersections.

According to the rules when elements/objects are placed on the intersections, the photo will be enhanced/better balanced etc.

It is also said that if you place horizons on the bottom gridline or the top gridline your photo will be better balanced.

Rules, rules and more rules. What about the photography? Can’t I just take photos?

There are no rules in photography composition in the conventional sense.

I mean, there are rules in football so that you don’t have anarchy on the pitch. And there are rules in the workplace. And there is the law of the land. They are all rules designed to confine us in some way, mostly for good and understandable reasons.

The rules of composition in photography have been written down, like the rule of thirds for example.

Such rules do physically exist.

But they don’t exist to control the photographer in any way. They don’t exist to tell the photographer what he or she can or can’t do. The being told what to do bit is a mis-interpretation that seems to annoy some photographers. Then there are others who treat it as a rule even though it may be to the detriment of their photography.

Both of those interpretations are wrong. All the rules of compositions are merely techniques, and all can be applied to a photograph both correctly and incorrectly.

What compositional rules is this photo using?
Rule of thirds? Or not the rule of thirds
Is this composition driven by rules, or driven by what looks right through the viewfinder

How many of these photos use the rule of thirds?

I think that after looking at them in the cold light of day, they all use the rule of thirds to an extent.

For two of the photos I was not aware of employing any compositional rule. For one of them I did apply the rule of thirds.

A long time ago I travelled across Africa and I came back with photos from my film camera, and I had never seriously taken photos like that before, and I was there as a backpacker not a photographer.

When I got home everybody seemed to really like my photos, and someone said that I was using the rule of thirds. I just smiled and nodded my head because I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about. I felt a bit embarrassed at not knowing.

Eventually I educated myself as to the definition of the rule of thirds and found that it was true, I was using the rule of thirds!

But I didn’t employ the rule knowingly, and looking at my photos today, I constantly see the rule applied, but I am rarely aware of actually applying it.

Ever since humans have been defacing the walls of caves, other people have been noticing that some people are better than others in the artistic department.

Then people started painting on canvasses and hanging them on walls. Then we started taking photographs. All the while people were noticing that some people were better than others with the artistic bit.

Lets pretend we can really do the following; look at every picture ever taken and sort the really good photos into one pile and put the really bad photos in another pile.

Now that we have done that, within the good pile, there would be some re-occuring compositional techniques being applied over and over to good effect. So, different genre, photographer, style and subject, but same technique. Over and over. And one of those re-occuring compositional techniques would be the rule of thirds.

And so was born the rule of thirds.

And of course, there would be many, many photos that don’t use the rule of thirds at all, but still work compositionally.

So what does that all mean? Well the answer is simple(ish?), the rule of thirds is not not a rule at all.

At one level it is a mechanical device or technique that can be employed to help create an aesthetically pleasing photograph.

At another level it is an effect that is caused by employing other more instinctive compositional processes.

Okay, it’s not so simple….not in words anyway.

Sometimes the apparent use of the rule of thirds is a consequence of employing other compositional devices or mechanisms. And because that sounds really confusing, the best way to explain is by example.

The photo below is of St Ives at dawn on midsummers day, and the use of the rule of thirds is absolutely obvious.

The position of the sun, the position of the horizon. The frame is split horizontally into equal thirds. If ever a photograph employed the rule of thirds, it is this one.

St Ives at dawn, Cornwall, UK

So that’s that then. Okay, read on…

I am standing at the bus station which overlooks the harbour. My camera is on a tripod and is as close to railings as I can get. The railings stop me and my camera from falling onto those rooftops.

I wanted to get those rooftops in the frame, and wanted their outline to contrast against the sea.

At first I thought there wasn’t enough light, but actually I love the dullness of this first light shot.

Then I wanted some of the harbour in the frame, that’s the bit you can see on the left near the horizon.

There needs to be as much of the harbour in the frame so that it looks like it’s meant to be there. That meant turning the camera left, which in turn ‘pushed’ the chimney stack on the rooftops too far to the right and it started to leave the frame or got too close to the edge of the frame.

There needs to be a significant gap between the chimney and the edge of the frame so that it doesn’t jar to much with the viewer. Lastly, I wanted to tilt the camera down to get more of the houses at the bottom of the frame into the shot, but the railings started to come into view.

The position of the sun actually became secondary to all the above and it was just luck that it ended up in the position that it did.

And that is how I framed the shot.

So, now, ask yourself the question; does this photograph use the rule of thirds? Has the photographer (me) used the rule of thirds to make this image?

I will repeat the statement I made above; sometimes the apparent use of the rule of thirds is a consequence of employing other compositional devices or mechanisms.

When a photo has been taken by someone else it may often be observed that a frame is split into thirds, or that there are important elements one third up and one third in (at an intersection).

However, it doesn’t absolutely mean that the photographer was consciously using the ‘rule of thirds’.

If you ‘reverse engineer’ a photograph to extract the method used to compose the image, then you also really need a worded description of how an image was taken from the photographer.

So we look at the photo above and assume that I have used the rule of thirds when in fact after I describe how I took the photo the rule of thirds was not employed at all.

But that doesn’t mean that the rule of thirds is useless. I don’t think it is. Here’s a look at another example

This is a photograph of the harbour area in the picturesque town of Wells-next-the-sea in Norfolk, UK.

There were other higher up views of this boat which showed it off in it’s surroundings much better.

What compositional rules is this photo using?

But I also wanted a close up shot of the boat too, but at this level the muddy foreground is dull and boring, the background is quite featureless and the sky wasn’t helping.

A compositional style that I use often with boats is symmetry, you can crouch down and have the horizon pass through the middle of the boat, and place the boat smack bang in the middle of the frame and it can look very graphic.

However it didn’t work so well here because I couldn’t get the background to look right and the curve of the shoreline looked wrong when the boat was in the middle of the frame (There is a concrete embankment to the left).

So, because I didn’t ‘see’ a composition screaming out at me, but I really wanted to take a photo of this boat, I consciously tried a number of compositions placing the boat in different positions within the frame to find something that I liked.

Eventually I used the rule of thirds grid as a template and placed the boat one third across. Once I had the boat positioned on the bottom right third, you can them move around, moving th ebackground but keeping the boat in the bottom third, until you see something that you like.

This allowed the boats natural surroundings and environment to fan out behind and to the right of the boat, drawing the eye into the frame and placing the boat in context. That was a mechanical decision that I made in order to find a photograph that was aesthetically pleasing.

And that is where the ‘rule of thirds’ can be consciously applied.

I think that this is a method that can be applied if you are less experienced and you can experiment a bit to find what works for you.

Eventually once you tune in to a style that suits you, you will become more intuitive and instinctive, and less mechanical.

I consciously use the rule of thirds when I am struggling to find a composition.

There are times when I am somewhere and I don’t have time to wait for days or weeks to find the perfect photograph, like the boat picture above. I was only in that location for a couple of hours and the weather just wasn’t being very nice to me and I was struggling to find a good composition for the lighting conditions.

So in that instance I used the rule of thirds grid as a template to position various elements initially, I found something that I liked, and then fine tuned that to try and get the best composition possible.

So I might place a horizon on the lower third gridline to start off with, then shift things around from that starting point. I may then end up with the horizon closer to the edge of the frame, or in the middle of the frame. There is no right or wrong, and certainly no absolute rules

Photographing instinctively and intuitively is – at least for me – the most rewarding way to photograph, and it’s something that I talk about all the time with photography, it allows you to find your own style.

When you are just starting out or you want to learn a new skill, there is nothing wrong with framing your photographs using the ‘tic-tac-toe’ grid, and then moving things around as you see fit. Practice makes perfect and having this in your armory of techniques can help you make better photographs, but use it as a technique, and employ it as you see fit.

In the long term it should not be used as a rule that must be obeyed at all times.

As time goes by you will rely on the ‘rules’ less and photograph more freely

8 thoughts on “The truth about the rule of thirds

  1. pommepal

    I have heard of the “rule” of thirds and I had not thought of turning on the grid in the view finder to check composition, good idea. I will “give it a go” sometimes it is hard to get it just right. I appreciate your comments with the boat picture.

  2. Herman

    What you write about the subject is exactly how I feel. But there is an addition to make. Architects use the rule 2.78 or 27.8% (instead of 33.33%). With other words: ‘Balanced’ pictures are the ones with the ‘main subjects’ (from either direction) between 27.8 and 55.6% and between 55.6 and 83.4%
    Rule of the thirds is just a guide line and if you use it it’s fine and you can’t go wrong. The art of photography is to ‘play’ with the rules. Honestly I’m still battling with it …. 🙂

    Greetings from a wonderful village in South Africa

  3. Ben

    Like you I only found out about the rule of thirds after somebody else commented on my photos, proclaiming that photography was easy and that I was just applying the rule. Actually I felt quite pleased because I had no idea what they were talking about, so I took it as a great compliment. Now that I am aware of the rule I don’t find myself consciously applying it unless I’m in a situation where I’m short on time and nothing jumps out at me compositionally.

    I think it’s a useful tool for people starting out with photography but don’t believe that you can replace a natural eye for composition by applying it. Great composition takes time, practice and some natural ability, I’m hoping I have the third and am working on the first two 🙂 Great post, thanks for sharing.

  4. ladyfi

    I use the rule of thirds without even realizing it… it’s only when people point it out that I realize I am doing it…

    Your photos are lovely!


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